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by Christopher Campbell

Lars von Trier doesn’t care what people think of him, and he probably doesn’t care who sees his new film.  I expect that most of those who hated Dogville, his previous work, won’t bother since the filmmaker serves up more of the same dauntless style and spirit that turned them off.  This should be fine.  It makes no more sense for people to see a type of movie they dislike than to eat liver and onions when they haven’t the taste for it.

Von Trier doesn’t normally make the same type of movie.  Altogether his work has a distinctive, congruous voice, but individually his films are produced with very dissimilar methods and motives.  He is credited with starting Dogme 95, a stylistic movement in which at least fifty titles have been crafted by adhering to strict, natural guidelines, and yet he made only one in this manner. 

The latest could be considered his first repeat.  He has worked in groups of three before, but this being his first continual trilogy, the director is keeping things the same.  Nevertheless the decision not to reinvent himself throughout is, for von Trier, still a form of reinvention.  He’s changed his pattern anyway.

Manderlay is the second part of this series, begun with Dogville and eventually ending with Washington, which tells about three American places visited by an idealistic young woman during the 1930s.  Continued is the combination of elements from theatre, literature and cinema that gives the story a transcendent range for opportunities and depths:  the artificial structure, the narration and chapter breaks and the multiple cameras remain with their advantages and challenges compared with more confined media, and are now even more acceptable, useful tools in their familiarity.  The only surface difference from Dogville to Manderlay is that the floor of the sound studio in which it’s filmed is now white with black outlines instead of the other way around.  And I think the location has decreased in size, set now on one property rather than a whole town. 

Directly following the events of its predecessor, Manderlay opens with Grace and her father (Bryce Dallas Howard and Willem Dafoe in place of Nicole Kidman and James Caan) driving cross-country, gangster entourage in tow, from Colorado to a plantation in Alabama (the only state in which to properly pay tribute to Brecht) on which slavery is still being practiced 70 years past its abolition.  As appalling or humorous as this may seem, indentured servitude was common in the south for many years following the civil war, and was usually indistinguishable from actual enslavement.  Grace’s father explains this harsh reality as if reading from Howard Zinn, arguing that it should be of no concern to himself or his party. 

Grace, however, is compelled to intervene, and leaves Dad to go on without her.   She is allotted – or given and traded as if no more free themselves –a few armed men for backup and a lawyer to oversee new contracts between the whites and the blacks.  Her meddling begins with the death of the manor’s ruling matriarch, referred to only as Mam (Lauren Bacall), as if she was the Wicked Witch of the West and Grace was Dorothy.  Yet the freed men, women and children do not celebrate her death so much as fear for their sudden loss of direction.

The response is understandable and was historically beneficial to the south in its illegal continuation of exploiting people unfamiliar with such voluntary discretion.  The story therefore becomes a philosophical debate on the issue of free will.  Danny Glover, playing an elder black named Wilhelm asks, “What time do you take supper when you’re free?”  The natural answer to that question is biological according to hunger, but what he’s really asking is rhetorical.  Every other action in his life quickly loses meaning and relevance, the daily chores and workings of the plantation abandoned for sloth and merriment.  The film is full of philosophical characters from the enigmatic Mark (Joseph Mydell) to the chameleonic survivalist Timothy (the amazing Isaach de Bankolé).

There are plenty of other ideas going on in Manderlay.  Obviously von Trier is making a statement critical of America’s past as well as its continuing race problems.  The director claims that his recent films are not primarily about America, but that he will keep setting them here as long as people have a problem with it.  We can probably expect many more, then, especially if von Trier never visits the states (he’s afraid of flying), since many will keep taking offense by limiting their interpretations as personal attacks. 

This is precisely why it isn’t actually fine for disparagers of Dogville to ignore Manderlay.  The story is more central and defined, but it also is open to more analysis.  Some might see a political discourse on the flaws or difficulties with democracy or even an allegory for the involvement in Iraq.  Maybe the guidebook used to manage the slaves, entitled Mam’s Law, could be considered God’s commandments.  Perhaps von Trier is even making fun of his own dependency on self-governing rules like those in the Dogme 95 manifesto.  Because von Trier is never narrow in his intent, and his films provoke much discussion, even those who don’t enjoy the film are not likely to walk away empty-handed. 

Unfortunately the only breed of man who endures something he or she does not like is the critic, and that is mainly because caviling reviews are always more fun to write than favorable.  Often the presumptuous critics’ doubts are concluded as warranted; they continually eat the liver and onions to reassure readers that they don’t like it.  Otherwise, their nay saying, like von Trier’s supposed anti-American views (he denies having them), is just unfair prejudice.   Currently the filmmaker is responsible for the most public polarization of movie critics (many publications print both opinions), though it seems to be hipper to pan him these days, and though Rotten Tomatoes shows a slight majority for praises.     

Nitpicking quibbles can be made about Manderlay, as they can with any movie.  I could probably write a pan based solely on Howard’s powerless performance, disappointing when compared to the great actresses von Trier has used before, if I saw that to be the most important aspect of the picture.  The undebatable fact with von Trier, though, is that his films are the work of a daring artist, a significance that rises above anyone’s take.  And like any great expressive masterpiece open to opinions, Manderlay deserves the respect of being seen.

©2005 Christopher Campbell

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